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Reload the Canons!

This series of articles is an attempt to play through The Canon of videogames: your Metroids, your Marios, your Zeldas, your Pokemons, that kind of thing.

Except I'm not playing the original games. Instead, I'm playing only remakes, remixes, and weird fan projects. This is the canon of games as seen through the eyes of fans, and I'm going to treat fan games as what they are: legitimate works of art in their own right that deserve our analysis and respect.

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Building and Breaking, In Comics as in BDSM

The seducer of the innocent. Corrupter. A medium driven by affect--the raw, visceral, embodied experience of emotion. A trap to lead the unwary into perversion.


It is to this gutter medium, this medium of ill repute, that I dedicated the last eight months of my life, transforming myself into the willing servant of an often capricious master. My thesis was, in large part, about the emotional content of comics--the very content that encouraged cultural critics ranging from Frederic Wertham, infamous comic censor, to Clement Greenberg and his followers, masters of disinterested analysis and the pure aesthetic critique of art, to malign the medium. I analyzed a structure that I dubbed the building and breaking template, a template consisting of a rising narrative arc depicted with a rigid grid of panels that concludes with some break from that grid at the moment of narrative climax.

I did NOT, however, analyze Stjepan Šejić's comic Sunstone. I namedropped it briefly in my conclusion, but I did not analyze it, simply because devoting a whole chapter of my thesis to a comic about two women discovering their love of domination and submission, sadism and masochism, and that other letter pair that I always forget, seemed like a pretty risky prospect. Unfortunately I'm not entirely sure that the time is right for the affective and semiotic analysis of porn comics, at least not in academia.

But this isn't academia. This is Storming the Ivory Tower, where I can do whatever the hell I want up to and including stealing your chair, and this week I want to take a look at Sunstone through the lens of some of my research and explore some of the ways that comics--all comics--get us hot and bothered.

I don't write about comics very often on here for a simple reason: accessibility. Comics are expensive, and not a whole lot of people actually, well, read them. I mentioned last time that I continue to cover Marvel's cinematic escapades in part because they're super popular and, dammit, I want to make some sweet Patreon cash off this wide fanbase. Which... maybe means I should stop trying to piss said fanbase off. Hm. Anyway, the point is that typically comics are a tricky subject to cover on here because I can't depend on my readers having read the things I'm talking about. (For example, my article on the formal structure of Batwoman back in the day went down like a lead zeppelin. Like. The unpopular kind. The kind that crashes. From the anecdoYOU KNOW WHAT JUST FORGET IT)

Sunstone doesn't have that problem, because the whole thing is available for free online. You can read it on author Stjepan Šejić's deviantart account. I actually prefer to read it on g.e-hentai's website though as reading comics on Deviantart, particularly infinite canvas scrolling comics, is roughly equivalent to receiving a comic in the form of a bunch of meticulously composed origami cranes which you must carefully unfold and refold each time you want to read a damn page. Regardless, the comic is easily accessible and I recommend becoming familiar at least with the beginning part of the narrative before we continue.

The story, at least at the start, is fairly straightforward. Two people who are interested in BDSM, a dominant woman (Ally) and a submissive woman (Lisa), meet online, become friends, and, as the comic begins, decide to meet in person for the first time in order to explore their fantasies. Much of the comic is that exploration played out for our viewing pleasure, and... this is really what you need to know for my analysis today. Well, that, and it's very good and very sexy.

Much of that sexiness comes from content, of course. Šejić is sometimes an awkward writer but as a storyteller he's quite excellent. The characters are engaging, the visuals are very appealing, and the actual depiction of BDSM practices is delightful, not the least because it eschews the coercive dynamics of 50 Shades of Grey and its ilk. The title, "Sunstone," comes from the safeword that the characters agree on--a word used to immediately halt whatever is happening, for any reason.

What I find most interesting, though, is the way the story is told formally, with specific choices made about the way panels are composed. This is what my thesis is about for the most part--the way structure affects our experience of a comic's narrative. I'm interested in the way structures tie into affect--an experience of emotional reactions that wells up from the body without our conscious bidding, an arousal of various feelings that precedes the description of those emotions in language. Structures themselves, not just their contents, might be able to arouse our passions, and when structure and story work together we can get some profound emotional results.

And wow are there some cool structures in Sunstone.

The main structure that I want to talk about is the building and breaking template that I mentioned in the introduction, and some of the component parts that make this structure significant. Sunstone is interesting to read with this structure in mind because, unlike most of the examples I analyzed in my thesis, it's a hypercomic with an infinite canvas format: the page sizes and shapes are highly variable in a way that they typically can't be in material comics, and they are also quite a bit longer than comic pages typically are.

This allows Šejić to explore this structure in some fascinating ways. Take the page fairly early on when our two main characters are preparing to meet for the first time. Uncharacteristically for this comic, the page is laid out horizontally, which allows the narrative to cut back and forth between our heroines in an intriguing way. Let's take a look at the  page on its own, without any panel contents, just the frames on their own:

Here we can see the shapes moving back and forth across the page. This is fun not just because the composition has allowed Šejić to use the mirrors to serve as the literal and figurative frames for the panel contents, but also because formally the composition highlights the back and forth motion here. It emphasizes the rhythmic effects of the page. The narrative running along the bottom of the page too is interesting, because while the panels are more irregular, we see a decrease in overall panel size moving across the page. The end result of this page is a buildup of tension and anticipation, where the rhythmic effects of the page increase the experience of voyeuristic delight as we see the different outfits the women try on. If we're inclined to feel aroused by the scenario--and this inclination is important, as I'll explain later--the development of the formal qualities in line with the content can enhance that experience.

One notable thing about this sequence is the way it takes up more space than it needs to. By this I mean that the number of panels used to convey "We both tried on different outfits before meeting for the first time" far exceeds what is necessary for understanding the narrative. There are various ways that we can understand and analyze this proliferation of panels. Neil Cohn, for example, has recently broken down the narrative functions of panels at length and described their place in the narrative. Many of the panels here, and many of the panels in building and breaking structures as a whole, might be described as "prolonging" the action, drawing it out beyond what is necessary for understanding the basic narrative beats.

The presence of these prolongators is pretty important because it's something that we don't see in comics for much of the medium's history in the English-language sphere of production. Instead, we might see a panel captioned "I tried on a number of outfits, unsure of what to settle upon; what would make the best impression" or something to that effect, and a single panel of our main character trying on an outfit. Here, the important action, the peak panel, is the only panel shown. More contemporary comics on the other hand tend to draw out the action, adding in these lengthening moments to slow down the action and explore subtle nuances.

I won't drag my own analysis out too much, but I want to note that we can draw some parallels between what Cohn is exploring with this division of panel purposes and some of the stuff Roland Barthes suggested about narratives back in the early 20th century--namely that some stories tend to have many extraneous actions and pieces of information while others, fairy tales for example, tend to have many "cardinal" functions that are critical to the plot and few other elaborating details. For all that this comic feels like a fantasy, then, it is firmly within the realms of more psychological literary works.

In fact, that's one of the interesting things about the comic. It's certainly an erotic work, and it's certainly a comic, both of which would tend to disqualify it from the category of psychological literature in the minds of at least some critics. Nevertheless, structurally speaking the amount of time the comic spends slowly developing the character interactions in anticipation for the eroticism to my mind reveal the ways in which Sunstone achieves real artistic power.

We can maybe see some of that in one of the scenes that more closely resembles the building and breaking template that I've spent so much time studying. Check out this page and the page that follows, and then take a look at the pages (the whole second page and the building section of the first page) stripped of their contents again:

What we have here is a series of horizontal panels broken by a dramatic full body shot of the women embracing. The structure is very simple, a play of regularity juxtaposed with dramatic irregularity. In the original pages, the strips depict a continuous zoom in on the characters, slowly building to the moment that we as an audience anticipate. And, most strikingly, the construction of the comic means that we scroll through a large stretch of these strips before clicking to the next page and being jolted by the breaking panel. We have to move to the next image to experience the culmination of that tension building exercise. It's a great exercise in the escalation of anticipation and arousal one which largely relies on the structure itself for its power.

These strips serve not only to delay the satisfying reveal of the breaking panel but to explore the interactions between the two women. By drawing out the action, minute interactions become more important. It provides a space to explore the budding relationship, and the transformation of a friendship into a sexually charged romance. This is the discourse of the comic just as surely as the secondary, "catalyzing" functions of Barthes's model represent the discourse of a novel, a way of shaping the perception of events rather than the overall thrust (ahaha) of the plot.

Sejic's command of this structurally grounded storytelling can be seen in the way he uses it not only for these arousing purposes but to explore other affective experiences as well. Later in the comic for example we get this interesting page. Let's look once more at the center set of panels on the page:

Here we see the same structure as before, but now it's being used for a very different purpose. The action is delayed because he's taking time to explore Ally's loneliness. The break panel comes in a way that emphasizes her isolation. It mirrors, in a sense, the series of strips that we looked at earlier, but here the wide format, rather than accommodating the two characters, feels somewhat excessive when there is only one character to fill the space. The anticipation of this break is here an anticipation of a kind of revelation, a true moment of tension in the narrative when her reaction to her environment directs the actions that she and Lisa will take in the future. The comic introduces psychological depth by taking the time to explore these ideas not just through narrating text but through a proliferation of images that are extraneous to our understanding of the basic action beats.

How we respond to this section might be quite variable however. This is one of the things that makes affect theory so interesting--the affective response one reader has to a text might be significantly different from how other readers with different experiences respond. If we are inclined to feel empathy for her loneliness, we may feel our hearts ache for her. If we are sexually frustrated ourselves, say perhaps if we're in another country from our partners and spending far more of our time grading papers than sexting, just purely hypothetically, this heartache might be replaced by a sympathetic response of thwarted desire and heightened anticipation for the next erotic scene. The continuous delaying of eroticism then might work us into a frenzy... or it might cause us to lose interest, if we find the anticipation dulls our arousal rather than increases it! The way we respond to this text is contingent on our own experiences, emotional makeup, psychology, and reasons for reading.

BDSM is at its most interesting, in my opinion, when it represents an interplay of power, and any understanding of BDSM must acknowledge the inherent agency and power in the act of acceding power, playing a part. Early in Sunstone this is described as a game where the goal (for the sub) is to lose, but also notes the difference between losing and throwing the game. Resistance, as well as submission, is part of the experience.

Thierry Groensteen notes in The System of Comics that the structure of the comics page "has no coercive power"--it can only request, not force, a reader to read in a certain way. There is a negotiation between reader and text. He goes on: "Similarly, nothing is able to oblige anyone to read anything." There is no way for Sunstone to force us to read all of the text--and wow there is a lot of text in Sunstone. There is nothing to prevent us from skipping through the boring character development bits to get to the parts where people are tied up and spanked.

So what, then, does that mean for the delays, the mounting tension, the proliferation of prolongating panels, and so on?

Well, it means that in comics, as in BDSM, an affective experience is a negotiated form of play that reader and text, dom and sub, participate in. The particular affective experiences of Sunstone that I'm describing, if they're experienced in ways similar to how I experience them, exist because the reader willingly reads in a particular way. But isn't affect pre-cognitive and pre-linguistic, something automatic? Well, sure, but how we read, how our embodied consciousness responds to what we read based on past experience, and how we then cognitively assess our responses are highly individualized and can open up a variety of interpretations in a way that just seeing affect as a simple insert-stimuli-receive-result dynamic doesn't allow... and, I'd suggest, to a great extent, this is true of BDSM as well!

I think it would be fair to criticize me at this point for not discussing the way that people, unlike comics, CAN coerce their partners in BDSM. I'll say in my defense that while this is an important topic it's somewhat outside the scope of this article in the same way that major failure states in comics are outside the scope... I'm not writing about Frank Miller's Holy Terror, for example, or even The Dark Knight Returns, which I'd argue does not coerce the reader but which does try to manipulate the reader into believing some pretty heinous things.

In a sense, the discussion of affect and of the negotiation that goes with any sexual encounter demands a negotiation with individual positionality. While we can make broad claims about structures and about experiences, we always need to allow for deviations from the norm. (After all, the experience of pain as pleasure is, itself, something of a significant deviation from the norm, and yet I suspect a few readers here are touched by Kushiel's dart--but that's an article for another day.) This is one of the reasons I particularly appreciate Sunstone--its exploration of Lisa and Ally's relationship and the experiences of the characters that surround them allows us to see the whole range of affective experiences that can come from BDSM, whether good or bad, erotic or tragic.

In this sense, the comic succeeds because from the level of structure up to the level of narrative, it is designed to explore, at its core, the varied experience of being human.

Storming the Ivory Tower will update again on Sunday, June 28th, as long as my eyestrain gets better and my harddrive doesn't crash. Next time on StIT: Repent, Harlequin! Said The Wikidoc Man, an article on why, post-Gamergate, defacing Wikipedia is not just permissible but downright crucial! Tune in to see the article that will get me hunted down and driven from every social media platform on the Internet!

These articles are made possible by my backers on Patreon. Subscribe to view article drafts, see behind the scenes artwork, my notes for upcoming articles, or even to commission an article from me. 


  1. Question regarding this - there's also seemingly a trade paperback version of it from Image. But this seems to me to suggest that it's an infinite canvas comic. Is the trade a non-preferred version then? i.e. which one should I actually read, assuming I'm willing to spend money?

    1. I was going to mention the trade and then decided not to spin off in that direction actually. But from what I've seen it looks like the trade is formatted remarkably differently but in a way that looks absolutely gorgeous. The online version is more sketchlike while the trade is more polished and uh actually proofread.

      I think I might get it myself, actually, if only to compare the two. It looks like it would be well worth the price.


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